ITU 2018: African connectivity for local solutions

Africa’s first hosting of the largest telecomms conference in the world was an important opportunity for the industry to showcase South Africa to the 91 attending countries. Not just Durban’s beautiful foreshore and local cuisine but the innovation of a sector that Nelson Mandela urged in 1995 to work towards “information riches” for all countries. He believed that communication technology would influence the world’s balance of power in the decades to come and he wanted emerging economies to share in the globalisation and wealth creation it would drive. How incredibly insightful he was – just 16 million people were connected to the internet when he spoke at ITU 1995 in Geneva. Today more than half the world’s population have some level of access and the focus of ITU 2018 has been to speed up full access and reach the rest of humanity.

In his opening address South African president Cyril Ramaphosa enthused about recent licensing of radio spectrum that will hasten the rollout of mobile communications. He hopes this will increase competition and stimulate growth so that previously unconnected sectors of society can take advantage of the 4th Industrial Revolution. MTN Group CEO Rob Shuter believes that despite great progress in connecting people in developed economies, progress on this continent will come from “African solutions for African problems”. The telco’s 5G technology and deep rural solar powered base stations were on display at the conference and shows how seriously they take their role in helping to install useful telecommunications infrastructure across the continent.

Although these important capabilities will help power Africa’s growth and re-industrialisation, we still need to do useful things with them to solve local problems and create value for communities. It doesn’t matter how cool the technology is or how fast someone in the desert can access the internet, people still need a reason to use it. This is the crucial distinction between a capability and a use case; a plane will fly you to Cape Town but the value is the family holiday which it enables. Everyone I spoke to was optimistic about smart connectivity for Africa but I was far more interested in what we are actually doing with these awesome capabilities. These are the innovative business models around “the last mile of connectivity”; the entrepreneurs that are making money out of solving problems in communities – I found them at the ITU SMME stand and we profiled a number of them on FNB’s Twitter feed.

Cattlewatch spent 6 years building their product which aims to help farmers track and monitor their livestock using the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and satellite imagery. Theft is a significant problem, especially for smaller farmers who often don’t have money for big fences; with cattlewatch you can erect an artificial “geofence” and the system will send you an SMS when a cattle crosses it – just like FNB inContact helps you keep track of your money. Cognitive Systems is a Cape Town based software engineering firm that has developed a data-agnostic “AI at the edge” engine. This means they can take any data stream, process it in real time and provide useful insights such as when a disease will break out, if an accident might happen on a road or even if a swimmer is in distress and needs a lifeguard.

Kasieats wants to be the Uber of the townships with fleets of micro-delivery scooter drivers that can improve supply chains between farmers and neighbouring communities. Their analytics engine offers a supply and demand “matchmaker” feature that optimises restaurant menus by monitoring local produce availability; their scooter-for-hire model also offers work opportunities for drivers who can’t afford to buy a vehicle. Emptytrips also has a smart matching engine which solves the problem of unused cargo capacity by auctioning “empty spaces that are going places”. On average a third of all bulk haulage globally is empty, more efficient space utilisation will reduce costs and help lower carbon emissions – significant challenges that need clever solutions.

FNB used the high profile opportunity of sponsoring ITU 2018 to showcase our mobile banking solutions which are helping to create a better world with our smart platforms. We entered the telco sector a few years ago with a mobile virtual network and today nearly a million customers use our data, voice and SMS capabilities. Together with value for money devices, FNB Connect helps drive financial inclusion and truly takes digital self-service banking across the last mile. FNB’s eWallet Xtra lets people send money without a bank account and other successful and disruptive use cases for FNB customers include selfie KYC, cardless cash withdrawals and free Software as a Service for business owners.

Whatever people are doing, they will increasingly need to connect and get useful info, even more so as new technologies drive exponential thinking. Tracking money with FNB’s inContact or monitoring your livestock with Cattlewatch are similar but clever uses cases – both combine a range of capabilities to deliver useful information. Africa needs both; the commercially minded innovators as well as the impressive tech – large scale connectivity that supports last mile problem solving and I saw plenty of both at ITU 2018. Hopefully the right conversations happened between them this week; certainly Durban’s beaches and bunny chow will have helped.

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